Light at end of tunnel for Covid-affected workplaces

File photo: Getty Images
File photo: Getty Images
That Covid-19 has created employment issues is a huge understatement. Employers and employees alike have been significantly affected.

The Omicron variant and isolation requirements are creating new issues.

Sick or isolating staff are adding to supply chain issues and lost productivity means more financial pressure.

These effects are compounded by recent legislative increases to sick leave, increases in minimum wage and record low unemployment.

Business-owners and their families are often working huge hours to cover sick staff and are increasingly experiencing stress and anxiety as a consequence.0

The same can be said for their workers.

They are coming under increasing pressure to cover for sick colleagues and work extra hours.

Concerns about exhausting sick-leave entitlements, or not qualifying for sick leave because of close contact isolation requirements, are similarly affecting on workers’ mental health.

These concerns are further compounded by rising interest rates, inflation, housing costs and increasing limits on credit.

Even working from home can create its own pressures if the home environment is not suitable or is complicated by the needs of family or other household members.

Workers in the workplace are also reporting anxiety about the possibility of being exposed to Covid-19, from their colleagues, customers or other persons in the workplace.

The upside to this is that employees are in a strong position to negotiate better terms and conditions.

Economists are predicting that salaries will increase by approximately 3% in the upcoming year.

Anecdotally, Queenstown hospitality businesses are paying record hourly rates to retain staff.

Employees are able to focus on better job choice, job satisfaction and even contemplate career changes.

This has led to a number of employees leaving their current employment to pursue other options. Overseas this trend has been coined ‘‘the great resignation”.

Changes to immigration law are also likely to result in workers no longer bonded to a particular employer, leaving for more attractive jobs or more satisfying careers.

The hospitality industry is a case in point.

Representatives of the industry are concerned that an industry already hit by lack of overseas tourists and isolating workers, may lose their migrant workers to less intensive work.

To complicate matters, the recent Government announcement that New Zealanders returning home will no longer be required to isolate, will likely result in a loss of workers to Australia and even further abroad.

The prospect of better pay, coupled with the ability to return home without restriction, will be extremely attractive to some workers.

Despite all this, a number of employers have worked with their employees to develop innovative solutions to many of these problems.

Some employers have put in place workplace measures to reduce workers’ anxiety. Split-shifts, social distancing, provision of medical-grade masks, RAT testing, flexible working arrangements and providing equipment to work from home are just a few examples.

As always, the most productive businesses are those in which employer and worker communicate and pull in the same direction.

During the 2020 lockdown annual leave was a point of contention. Some employers required their workers to use their annual leave when the reality was that it had limited, if any, rest and recreational value. However, now, with the borders open, workers are more likely to be tempted to take leave.

At the same time, some employers who are desperate will refuse requests for leave to try to retain their workforce.

Like most aspects of the employment relationship, annual leave requires good faith negotiation between employer and employee.

Both the requirements of the business and the needs of the particular worker should be taken into account.

There is a balance between maintaining your workforce and losing productivity because workers haven’t had proper access to rest and recreation.

We have had the 2020 lockdowns, the 2021 vaccination mandates and now the 2022 Omicron isolating issues.

Less restrictive isolating requirements bring with them both advantages and disadvantages to the workplace.

However, there is finally a sense that as this year progresses, we may reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

 - The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not purport to be specific legal or professional advice. John Farrow is a litigation partner with Dunedin law firm Anderson Lloyd.